One Saturday morning last January, Alice pointed out that I hadn’t had sex in three years. I knew I’d been going through a dry patch—I’d been getting through vibrator batteries incredibly fast, and a few days previously I’d Googled “penis” just to remind myself what one looked like—but the full force of how much time I’d wasted not having sex hadn’t hit me till then.
The last time I’d had sex was nothing to write home about either, let me tell you. He was a twenty-one-year-old editorial assistant from Alice’s office with an unusually large forehead, and it happened after a terrible house party that left our flat stinking of pastis. I tried to take him to my room, but a couple were already in there, dry-humping on top of the duvet, so we did it on the fake leather sofa in the living room. I kept getting stuck to the sofa, sweat pooling in the gap beneath my lower back. I don’t think he’d ever fucked anyone before, so it was a bit awkward and thrusty, and he cried and hugged me for too long afterwards. It comes back to me in flashes all the time—I could be boarding a bus, washing my hair, or sitting on a particularly squeaky sofa when suddenly I see his clenched red face or his sweaty pubic hair and flinch involuntarily. Enough to put anyone off sex for, say, three years.
To be honest, I’d always preferred the idea of sex to sex itself. In my imagination, I was experimental, confident, uninhibited, a biter of shoulders, a user of words like “pussy.” I could think about sex in the filthiest terms and speak frankly about it to friends, but when it came to actually doing it, or talking to someone I might do it with, I clammed up. I struggled to think of myself as sexy when I was with another person. I struggled to say sexy things with a straight face. It all felt performative to me, ridiculous, too far removed from the way I behaved in a non-sexy context, like I was playing a part in a porn film, and playing it badly. I couldn’t even flirt convincingly, certainly not when I was sober. Which might go some way towards explaining why it had been so long since I’d fucked anyone.
Alice and Dave, on the other hand, did have sex. A surprising amount of it, actually, considering they’d been going out for five years. The Friday night before that Saturday morning, I was alone in the living room, trying to ignore the sex noises coming from their bedroom. Our flat had incredibly thin walls, so it was almost as if I were there with them. How can something that is so much fun when you’re doing it (though not always ?— ?see previous note about sweaty sofa sex) be so repulsive when overheard? I didn’t mind living with a couple; having three people in the flat brought the rent down. Also, Dave had several Ottolenghi cookbooks and some very tasteful mid-century furniture, so we were better fed and more stylish than we would have been without him. But sex-noise-wise, I’d had
The next morning, I heard Alice walk Dave to the door. They whispered to each other revoltingly and kissed wetly. I sat on my bed, picking the dry skin on my fingers, practising my speech in my head.
Alice walked into my room without knocking; people tend to do that when there’s no risk you’ll be shagging. She sat on my bed, her hair rumpled, a post-coital smile on her face. “Do you fancy brunch?” she said. “I’m starving.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said, which wasn’t how I’d intended to broach the subject.
“Why aren’t you surprised? What do you mean?”
“Well, you and Dave sounded like you had fun last night.”
“You listened to us having sex?”
“I didn’t listen. I heard. It wasn’t an active choice.”
“We weren’t that loud,” said Alice, as though asking for reassurance.
“You asked him to—”
I looked away. “You know what you asked him to do.”
“How do I know if you won’t say?”
“Fine. You asked him to stick a finger up your arse.”
“You’re the one that said it!”
“So keep your voices down!”
Alice’s cheeks were pink.
There was an unpleasant silence.
“Did you really hear us?”
“Yes! I always hear you!”
“You can’t always hear us. We don’t even have sex that often any more—”
“Three times a week isn’t often?”
“Not for us.”
“Well. I’m very happy for you.”
“You wouldn’t care so much if you had a boyfriend too.”
“I don’t want a boyfriend, thank you.”